Woodbury welcomes teacher home from Afghanistan

After coming back from a dangerous job in Afghanistan, you would think an elementary school in Marshalltown would be a piece of cake for Richard Ortega.

But Ortega, a second grade teacher at Woodbury Elementary School, had some apprehension this week coming back to school.

“I was nervous to come back because I haven’t done this in almost a year,” Ortega said.

Woodbury staff and students held an assembly Thursday to welcome back the teacher who spent seven months in Afghanistan as a construction electrician as part of the U.S. Navy Seabees.

“It’s good to have him back in the building,” said Anel Garza, Woodbury principal. “The kids are excited.”

The crowd gave him a standing ovation and the students presented him with items including a wreath to honor him at the assembly in the school gym. Ortega asked his former students to raise their hand during the assembly and more than 100 did – showing the impact he has had on the school.

“I’m so proud of my ex-students,” he said.

While Ortega was deployed, he received a big care package from the Woodbury students chock full of candy.

“It was greatly appreciated,” he said.

His first day back as teacher was Wednesday. He said there were times where he could barely move that day at the school.

“I got mobbed by all the kids,” Ortega said. “A lot of hugs.”

Aside from the joy of having a popular teacher back, Garza said the students also learned about the world by having their teacher go through this process.

“This is a good learning opportunity for them,” Garza said. “It’s not an abstract concept to them when they live it through one of their teachers.”

Ortega, 42, has served previously in Kuwait and has plans to retire in a few years from the military.

“That’s my last deployment,” Ortega said.